Although the earliest English settlers in what would become the United States often enjoyed peaceful relations with nearby tribes, as early as the Pequot War of 1637, the colonists were taking sides in military rivalries between Indian nations in order to assure colonial security and open further land for settlement. The wars, which ranged from the seventeenth-century (King Philip's War, King William's War, and Queen Anne's War at the opening of the eighteenth century) to the Wounded Knee massacre and "closing" of the American frontier in 1890, generally resulted in the opening of Native American lands to further colonization, the conquest of American Indians and their assimilation, or forced relocation to Indian reservations. Modern scholars take different positions in the ongoing genocide debate. Various statistics have been developed concerning the devastations of these wars on both the American and Indian nations. The most reliable figures are derived from collated records of strictly military engagements such as by Gregory Michno which reveal 21,586 dead, wounded, and captured civilians and soldiers for the period of 1850–90 alone. Other figures are derived from extrapolations of rather cursory and unrelated government accounts such as that by Russell Thornton who calculated that some 45,000 Indians and 19,000 whites were killed. This later rough estimate includes women and children on both sides, since noncombatants were often killed in frontier massacres.
In his book The Wild Frontier: Atrocities during the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee, amateur historian William M. Osborn sought to tally every recorded atrocity in the area that would eventually become the continental United States, from first contact (1511) to the closing of the frontier (1890), and determined that 9,156 people died from atrocities perpetrated by Native Americans, and 7,193 people died from those perpetrated by Europeans. Osborn defines an atrocity as the murder, torture, or mutilation of civilians, the wounded, and prisoners.
What is not disputed is that the savagery from both sides of the war — the Indians' own methods of brutal warfare and the Americans' destructive campaigns — was such as to be noted in every year in newspapers, historical archives, diplomatic reports and America's own Declaration of Independence. ("…[He] has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.")
The Indian Wars comprised a series of smaller wars. American Indians, diverse peoples with their own distinct tribal histories, were no more a single people than the Europeans. Living in societies organized in a variety of ways, American Indians usually made decisions about war and peace at the local level, though they sometimes fought as part of formal alliances, such as the Iroquois Confederation, or in temporary confederacies inspired by leaders such as Tecumseh.
| Indian Wars|
East of the Mississippi
For the American rebels the American Revolutionary War was essentially two parallel wars: while the war in the East was a struggle against British rule, the war in the West was an "Indian War". The newly proclaimed United States competed with the British for the allegiance of Native American nations east of the Mississippi River. The colonial interest in westward settlement, as opposed to the British policy of maintaining peace, was one of the minor causes of the war. Most Native Americans who joined the struggle sided with the British, hoping to use the war to halt colonial expansion onto American Indian land. The Revolutionary War was "the most extensive and destructive" Indian war in United States history.
Many native communities were divided over which side to support in the war. For the Iroquois Confederacy, the American Revolution resulted in civil war: The Six Nations split with the Oneidas and Tuscaroras siding with the Americans and the other four nations fighting for the British. While the Iroquois tried to avoid fighting directly against one another, the Revolution eventually forced Iroquois-to-Iroquois combat. The defeated groups (as well as those who supported the Americans) lost much of their land within the United States. The Crown aided the landless Iroquois by rewarding them with a reservation at Grand River in Canada. Cherokees split into a neutral (or pro-American) faction and the anti-American faction that the Americans referred to as the Chickamaugas, led by Dragging Canoe. Many other communities were similarly divided.
Frontier warfare was particularly brutal, and numerous atrocities were committed on both sides. Both White and Indian noncombatants suffered greatly during the war, and villages and food supplies were frequently destroyed during military expeditions. The largest of these expeditions was the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, which destroyed more than 40 Iroquois villages in order to neutralize Iroquois raids in upstate New York. The expedition failed to have the desired effect: American Indian activity became even more determined.
Native Americans were stunned to learn that, when the British made peace with the Americans in the Treaty of Paris (1783), the British had ceded a vast amount of American Indian territory to the United States without informing their Indian allies. The United States initially treated the American Indians who had fought with the British as a conquered people who had lost their land. When this proved impossible to enforce (the Indians had lost the war on paper, not on the battlefield), the policy was abandoned. The United States was eager to expand, and the national government initially sought to do so only by purchasing Native American land in treaties. The states and settlers were frequently at odds with this policy, and more warfare followed.
These were an almost continuous series of frontier conflicts that began with Cherokee involvement in the American Revolutionary War and continued until late 1794. The so-called Chickamauga were those Cherokee, at first from the Overhill Towns and later from the Lower Towns, Valley Towns, and Middle Towns, who followed the war leader Dragging Canoe southwest, first to the Chickamauga (Chattanooga, Tennessee) area, then to the Five Lower Towns. There they were joined by groups of Muskogee, white Tories, runaway slaves, and renegade Chickasaw, as well as well over one hundred Shawnee, in exchange for whom a hundred Chickamauga-Cherokee warriors went north, along with another seventy a few years later. The primary objects of attack were the colonies along the Watauga, Holston, and Nolichucky rivers and in Carter's Valley in upper East Tennessee, as well as the settlements along the Cumberland River beginning with Fort Nashborough in 1780, even into Kentucky, plus against the colonies, later states, of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The scope of attacks by the "Chickamauga" and their allies ranged from quick raids by small war parties of a handful of warriors to large campaigns by four or five hundred, and once over a thousand, warriors. The Upper Muskogee under Dragging's Canoe's close ally Alexander McGillivray frequently joined their campaigns as well as operating separately, and the settlements on the Cumberland came under attack from the Chickasaw, Shawnee from the north, and Delaware as well. Campaigns by Dragging Canoe and his successor, John Watts, were frequently conducted in conjunction campaigns in the Northwest. The response by the colonists were usually attacks in which Cherokee towns in peaceful areas were completely destroyed, though usually without great loss of life on either side. The wars continued until the Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse in November 1794.
In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance officially organized the Northwest Territory for white settlement. American settlers began pouring into the region. Violence erupted as Indians resisted this encroachment, and so the administration of President George Washington sent armed expeditions into the area to put down native resistance. However, in the Northwest Indian War, a pan-tribal confederacy led by Blue Jacket (Shawnee), Little Turtle (Miami), Buckongahelas (Lenape), and Egushawa (Ottawa) crushed armies led by Generals Josiah Harmar and Arthur St. Clair. General St. Clair's defeat was the severest loss ever inflicted upon an American army by Native Americans. The Americans attempted to negotiate a settlement, but Blue Jacket and the Shawnee-led confederacy insisted on a boundary line the Americans found unacceptable, and so a new expedition led by General Anthony Wayne was dispatched. Wayne's army defeated the Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The Indians had hoped for British assistance; when that was not forthcoming, the Indians were compelled to sign the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which ceded modern-day Ohio and part of Indiana to the United States.
The United States continued to gain title to Native American land after the Treaty of Greenville, at a rate that created alarm in Indian communities. In 1800, William Henry Harrison became governor of the Indiana Territory and, under the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, pursued an aggressive policy of obtaining titles to Indian lands. Two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, organized another pan-tribal resistance to American expansion. Tecumseh's goal was to get Native American leaders to stop selling land to the United States.
While Tecumseh was in the south attempting to recruit allies among the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws, Harrison marched against the Indian confederacy, defeating Tenskwatawa and his followers at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. The Americans hoped that the victory would end the militant resistance, but Tecumseh instead chose to openly ally with the British, who were soon at war with the Americans in the War of 1812.
Like the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 was also a massive Indian war on the western front. Encouraged by Tecumseh, the Creek War (1813–1814), which began as a civil war within the Creek (Muscogee) nation, became part of the larger struggle against American expansion. Although the war with the British was a stalemate, the United States was more successful on the western front. Tecumseh was killed by Harrison's army at the Battle of the Thames, ending the resistance in the Old Northwest. The Creeks who fought against the United States were defeated. The First Seminole War, in 1818, was in some ways a continuation of the Creek War and resulted in the transfer of Florida to the United States in 1819.
As in the Revolution and the Northwest Indian War, after the War of 1812, the British abandoned their Indian allies to the Americans. This proved to be a major turning point in the Indian Wars, marking the last time that Native Americans would turn to a foreign power for assistance against the United States.
Numerous Indian Removal treaties were signed. Most American Indians reluctantly but peacefully complied with the terms of the removal treaties, often with bitter resignation. Some groups, however, went to war to resist the implementation of these treaties. This resulted in two short wars (the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Creek War of 1836), as well as the long and costly Second Seminole War (1835–1842).
The U.S. Army had 11 companies, about 550 soldiers, stationed in Florida. Fort King had only one company of soldiers, and it was feared that they might be overrun by the Seminoles. There were three companies at Fort Brooke, with another two expected momentarily, so it was decided to send two companies to Fort King. On December 23, 1835 the two companies, totalling 108 men, left Fort Brooke under the command of Maj. Francis L. Dade. Seminoles shadowed the marching soldiers for five days. On December 28 the Seminoles ambushed the soldiers, and wiped out the command. Only three men survived the massacre, and one, Edwin De Courcey, was hunted down and killed by a Seminole the next day. Two survivors, Ransome Clarke and Joseph Sprague, returned to Fort Brooke. Only Clarke, who died of his wounds later, left any account of the battle from the Army's perspective. Joseph Sprague was unharmed and lived quite a while longer, but was not able to give an account of the battle because he had sought immediate refuge in a nearby pond. The Seminoles lost just three men, with five wounded. On the same day as the Dade Massacre, Osceola and his followers shot and killed from ambush Wiley Thompson and six others outside of Fort King.
Subsequently Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock was among those who found the remains of the Dade party in February. In his journal he wrote a haunting account of the discovery, then vented his bitter discontent with the conflict: "The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid a war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government.".
On December 29 General Clinch left Fort Drane (recently established on Clinch's plantation, about twenty miles (32 km) northwest of Fort King) with 750 soldiers, including 500 volunteers on an enlistment due to end January 1, 1836. They were going to a Seminole stronghold called the Cove of the Withlacoochee, what is now known as Lake Tsala Apopka, an area of many lakes on the southwest side of the Withlacoochee River. When they reached the river, they could not find the ford, and Clinch had his regular troops ferried across the river in a single canoe they had found. Once they were across and had relaxed, the Seminoles attacked. The troops only saved themselves by fixing bayonets and charging the Seminoles, at the cost of four dead and 59 wounded. The militia provided cover as the Army troops then withdrew across the river.
In another key skirmish known as the Battle of Lake Okeechobee, Colonel Zachary Taylor who later became a U.S. President, saw the first major action of the campaign. Leaving Fort Gardiner on the upper Kissimmee with 1,000 men on December 19, Taylor headed towards Lake Okeechobee. In the first two days out ninety Seminoles surrendered. On the third day Taylor stopped to build Fort Basinger, where he left his sick and enough men to guard the Seminoles that had surrendered. Three days later, on Christmas Day, 1837, Taylor's column caught up with the main body of the Seminoles on the north shore of Lake Okeechobee.
The Seminoles led by Alligator, Sam Jones, and the recently escaped Coacoochee, were well positioned in a hammock surrounded by sawgrass. The ground was thick mud, and sawgrass easily cuts and burns the skin. Taylor had about 800 men, while the Seminoles numbered less than 400. Taylor sent the Missouri volunteers in first. He moved his troops squarely into the center of the swamp. His plan was to make a direct attack rather than encircle the Indians. All his men were on foot. In the first line were the Missouri volunteers. As soon as they came within range, the Indians opened with heavy fire. The volunteers broke, and their commander, Colonel Gentry, fatally wounded, was unable to rally them. They fled back across the swamp. The fighting in the saw grass was deadliest for five companies of the Sixth Infantry; every officer but one, and most of their noncoms were killed or wounded. When that part of the regiment retired a short distance to re-form, they found only four men of these companies unharmed.Only about a dozen Seminoles had been killed in the battle. Nevertheless, the Battle of Lake Okeechobee was hailed as a great victory for Taylor and the Army. 26 U.S. soldiers, including the majority of Taylor's officers and NCOs, were killed, with 112 wounded, against 11 Seminoles killed and 14 wounded. No Seminoles were captured, although Taylor did capture 100 ponies and 600 head of cattle.
By 1842, the war was winding down and most Seminole save a few hundred diehards, had left Florida for Oklahoma. Estimates of the true cost of the Seminole War range from US$30,000,000 to $40,000,000. But there is no analysis of the actual cost. Congress appropriated funds for the 'suppression of Indian hostilities', but the costs of the Creek War of 1836 are included in that. An inquiry in extravagance in naval operations found that the Navy had spent about US$511,000 on the war. The investigation did find questionable expenditures. Among other things, while the Army had bought dugout canoes for $10 to $15 apiece, the Navy spent an average of $226 per canoe. The number of Army, Navy and Marine regulars who served in Florida is given as 10,169. About 30,000 militiamen and volunteers also served in the war.
Sources agree that the U.S. Army officially recorded 1,466 deaths in the Second Seminole War, mostly from disease. The number killed in action is less clear. Mahon reports 328 regular Army killed in action, while Missall reports that Seminoles killed 269 officers and men. Almost half of those deaths occurred in the Dade Massacre, Battle of Lake Okeechobee and Harney Massacre. Similarly, Mahon reports 69 deaths for the Navy while Missal reports 41 for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, but adds others may have died after being sent out of Florida as incurable. Mahon and the Florida Board of State Institutions agree that 55 volunteer officers and men were killed by the Seminoles, while Missall says the number is unknown. There is no figure for how many militiamen and volunteers died of disease or accident, however. The number of white civilians and Seminoles killed is also uncertain. A northern newspaper carried a report that more than eighty civilians were killed by Indians in Florida in 1839. Nobody was keeping a cumulative account of the number of Indians killed, or who died of starvation or other privations caused by the war. The Indians shipped west did not fare well, either. By the end of 1843 3,824 Indians had been shipped from Florida to what became the Indian Territory, but in 1844 there were only 3,136 left. As of 1962 there were only 2,343 Seminoles in Oklahoma and perhaps some 1,500 in Florida.
| Indian Wars|
West of the Mississippi
The first notable battle was the Fort Parker massacre in 1836, in which a huge war party of Comanches, Kiowa, Witchitas, and Delaware attacked the settler outpost Fort Parker. Despite the small number of white settlers killed during the raid, the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker caused widespread outrage among Texas' Anglo settlers.
Once the Republic of Texas was declared and had secured some sovereignty in their war with Mexico, the Texas government under President Sam Houston pursued a policy of engagement with the Comanches and Kiowa. Ironically, since Houston had lived with the Cherokee, the Republic faced a conflict called the Cordova Rebellion, in which Cherokees appear to have joined with Mexican forces to fight the fledgling country. Houston resolved the conflict without resorting to arms, refusing to believe that the Cherokee would take up arms against his government. The Lamar administration, which followed Houston, took a very different policy towards the Indians. Under Lamar, Texas attempted to remove the Cherokee to the west and in this, the Texans were successful. With that policy in place, the Texas government sought to deport the Comanches and Kiowa. This led to a series of battles, including the Council House Fight, in which at a peace parley the Texas militia seized a number of Comanche chiefs and the resulting Great Raid of 1840 and the Battle of Plum Creek.
The Lamar Administration was known for its failed and expensive Indian policy; the cost of the war with the Indians exceeded the annual revenue of the government throughout his four year term. It was followed by a second Houston administration which resumed the previous policy of diplomacy. Texas signed treaties with all of the tribes, including the Comanche.
After Texas joined the Union in 1846, the struggle between the Plains Indians and the settlers was taken up by the federal government and the state of Texas. The years 1856-1858 were particularly vicious and bloody on the Texas frontier as settlers continued to expand their settlements into the Comanche homeland, the Comancheria, and 1858 was marked by the first Texan incursion into the heart of the Comancheria, the so-called Antelope Hills Expedition, marked by the Battle of Little Robe Creek. This battle signaled the beginning of the end of the Comanche as a viable people, as they were attacked in the heart of their domain, in force.
The battles between settlers and Indians continued and in 1860, at the Battle of Pease River, Texas militia destroyed an Indian camp. In the aftermath of the battle, the Texans learned that they had recaptured Cynthia Ann Parker, the little girl captured by the Comanche in 1836. She returned to live with the Parkers, but missed her children, including her son Quanah Parker. He was the son of Parker and Comanche Chief Peta Nocona and would go on to be a Comanche war chief at the First Battle of Adobe Walls. As chief of the Quahadi Comanches, he finally surrendered to the overwhelming force of the federal government and in 1875 moved to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.
White conflict with the Plains Indians continued through the Civil War. The Dakota War of 1862 (more commonly called the Sioux Uprising of 1862 in older authorities and popular texts) was the first major armed engagement between the U.S. and the Sioux. After six weeks of fighting in Minnesota, lead mostly by Chief Taoyateduta (aka, Little Crow), records conclusively show that more than 500 U.S. soldiers and settlers died in the conflict, though many more may have died in small raids or after being captured. The number of Sioux dead in the uprising is mostly undocumented, but after the war, 303 Sioux were convicted of murder and rape by U.S. military tribunals and sentenced to death. Most of the death sentences were commuted, but on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, 38 Dakota Sioux men were hanged in what is still today the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
In 1864, one of the more infamous Indian War battles took place, the Sand Creek Massacre. A locally raised militia attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in southeast Colorado and killed and mutilated an estimated 150 men, women, and children. The Indians at Sand Creek had been assured by the U.S. Government that they would be safe in the territory they were occupying, but anti-Indian sentiments by white settlers were running high. Later congressional investigations resulted in short-lived U.S. public outcry against the slaughter of the Native Americans.
In 1875, the last serious Sioux war erupted, when the Dakota gold rush penetrated the Black Hills. The U.S. Army did not keep miners off Sioux (Lakota) hunting grounds; yet, when ordered to take action against bands of Sioux hunting on the range, according to their treaty rights, the Army moved vigorously. In 1876, after several indecisive encounters, General George Custer found the main encampment of the Lakota and their allies at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Custer and his men — who were separated from their main body of troops — were all killed by the far more numerous Indians who had the tactical advantage. They were led in the field by Crazy Horse and inspired by Sitting Bull's earlier vision of victory.
Later, in 1890, a Ghost Dance ritual on the Northern Lakota reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, led to the Army's attempt to subdue the Lakota. During this attempt, gunfire erupted, and soldiers killed up to 300 Indians, mostly old, women and children. The approximately 25 soldiers who died may have been killed by friendly fire during the battle. Long before this, the means of subsistence and the societies of the indigenous population of the Great Plains had been destroyed by the slaughter of the buffalo, driven almost to extinction in the 1880s by indiscriminate hunting.
The conflicts in this large geographical area span from 1846 to 1895. They involved every non-pueblo tribe in this region and often were a continuation of Mexican-Spanish conflicts. The Navajo and Apache conflicts are perhaps the best known, but they were not the only ones. The last major campaign of the U.S. military in the Southwest involved 5,000 troops in the field. This caused the Apache Geronimo and his band of 24 warriors, women and children to surrender in 1886.
The tribes or bands in the southwest (including the Pueblos) had been engaged in cycles of trading and fighting each other and foreign settlers for centuries prior to the United States annexing their region from Mexico in 1840.
A well-known and influential book in popular history was Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). In academic history, Francis Jennings's The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: Norton, 1975) was notable for its reversal of the traditional portrayal of Indian-European relations. A recent and important release from the perspective of both Indians and the soldiers is Jerome A. Greene's Indian War Veterans: Memories of Army Life and Campaigns in the West, 1864–1898 (New York, 2007).
Some historians now emphasize that to see the Indian wars as a racial war between Indians and White Americans simplifies the complex historical reality of the struggle. Indians and whites often fought alongside each other; Indians often fought against Indians. For example, although the Battle of Horseshoe Bend is often described as an "American victory" over the Creek Indians, the victors were a combined force of Cherokees, Creeks, and Tennessee militia led by Andrew Jackson. From a broad perspective, the Indian wars were about the conquest of Native American peoples by the United States; up close it was rarely quite as simple as that.
In his book American Holocaust, David Stannard argues that the destruction of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, in a "string of genocide campaigns" by Europeans and their descendants, was the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.. The genocide debate is ongoing, and about as many scholars agree with it as don't.